December 09, 1996 12:00 PM

>Emily Watson


OKAY, IT HASN’T DONE A KING’S RANSOM at the box office. But Breaking the Waves, a decidedly non-mainstream film from Danish director Lars von Trier that won the Grand Jury Prize at Cannes this year, is now winning over U.S. audiences and eliciting raves from critics captivated by female lead Emily Watson. A 29-year-old British stage actress making what The New York Times’s Janet Maslin hails as “an astonishing screen debut,” Watson gives a wrenching performance as Bess, a simpleminded woman in a Scottish fishing village who remains pure of spirit even as she engages in lurid sex acts at the urging of her paralyzed husband. It is Watson’s ability to convey Bess’s innocence even as she is being humiliated that has most impressed critics. “I tried to feel as she feels,” Watson says. “She has an endless capacity for love.” Watson, a literature major at Bristol University, began acting six years ago at Drama Studio London. In 1993 she joined the Royal Shakespeare Company, where she met actor Jack Waters, 31, whom she married last year. Watson says she found Bess “great company.” But she did balk at wearing Bess’s red vinyl hot pants. “They look awful,” Watson says with a laugh. “But they’re perfect, really. They look so ridiculous, you say, ‘Bess, please!’ ”

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